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Photo Credit: © John E. Sokolowski | USA Today

The Leafs’ special teams will be the difference against the Bruins

Although the Leafs might be considered underdogs for the upcoming first-round series against the Boston Bruins, what sets them apart is how deadly their special team units can be.

On paper, the difference is minimal. After a gruelling 82 games, the Leafs stand at 22.01 PP% and rank eighth among all other teams, while the Bruins have done slightly better at converting chances. Standing just five spots above, at third in the league, the Bruins have a 25.9 PP% conversion rate.

These basic stats to tell what team is scoring more on their powerplay do not tell the whole story at all. Just simply ending up with the puck in the back of the net is literally the goal, but how effectively these two teams are able to find success on the man advantage shows why they are on completely different ends of the spectrum.

The Leafs strategy of succumbing shorthanded goalies to death by a thousand cuts works for them and is why they can rely heavily on their powerplay to get the job done some games.

For instance, in a game against the San Jose Sharks on November 28th this season, the Leafs’ second unit was able to enter the zone cleanly and score with a couple shot attempts shortly after.

Even with Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, and Evander Kane out there for the penalty kill, the Sharks were unable to keep up with the Leafs second powerplay unit. That’s one reason why the then-league-leading penalty kill allowed three Leafs goals on the powerplay in that game alone.

Previously stated, this is actual video evidence of why the late return of Jake Gardiner could play a massive role in the Leafs having a successful playoff series. He stayed patient early on in the clip, but was able to get the puck to the net under pressure, setting up the net-front Andreas Johnsson to then lay it off to Patrick Marleau for the goal.

The ability to create these chances so quickly and effectively is why the Leafs lead the league in shot attempts per hour (CF/60) on the powerplay.

Sitting at 112.99 CF/60, the Leafs have the highest rate of shot attempts and it’s not particularly close.

The Sharks are the next-best team with a rate of 106.95 CF/60, a difference of 6.04. That difference between the Leafs and the next best team is bigger than the distance between the second-best Sharks and the sixth-best Panthers (5.85).

Meanwhile, the Bruins sit at ninth in that rate, with a 99.06 CF/60 — a massive hole between them and the Leafs for how many shot attempts they’re able to get off.

Even if you believe that the Bruins will just suffocate the Leafs powerplay, they’re actually able to get those shots on net at a much higher rate than Boston as well. At an SF/60 rate of 62.38, they lead the league (again), while the Bruins sit at tenth with 52.82.

If you’re sick of just comparing stats, I’m sorry. But the Leafs are so damn good on the powerplay for this whole season it’s hard to not mention.

Although the Leafs are extremely good at sending pucks to the net and attempting shots with any amount of space when the other team is killing a penalty, where they’re able to get their shots off is key to their success.

According to evolving-hockey.com, the Leafs lead (again) in expected goals per hour while they’re on the powerplay.

At 9.29 xGF/60, the Leafs not only have the highest in the league, but they have established their season as historic for getting key scoring chances. Since the 2007-08 season, the current Leafs have the third-highest xGF/60 rate on the powerplay among the 362 seasons recorded. The other top seasons are the 2010-11 Sharks, the 2017-18 Leafs, the 2009-10 Capitals, and the 2016-17 Leafs.

This powerplay is monumental.

To have three of the top five seasons since the stat has been recorded is absolutely phenomenal. Not even just to be the same franchise, but to have relatively the same players producing at that rate too.

Comparing this to the Bruins current setup, is like comparing the most crisp and delicious apple you could ever find in your local orchard to the rotten orange that you find behind the dumpster in an alley beside Sneaky Dee’s on a Friday night.

Sitting with the 13th-best xGF/60 rate on the powerplay, the Bruins have been able to get their goals but not in a very sustainable way. The Edmonton Oilers are better at getting well-deserved scoring chances this year than the Bruins — just think about that.

via hockeyviz.com

To get a better visual understanding of how well the Leafs are getting scoring chances, Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) has wonderfully shown the absolute dominance this team can have on an opponent.

Summing it up with a threat level of +42%, you are able to quantify how damn good this team is on the man advantage. Growing that giant purple “plus” area right in front of the net demonstrates the way the Leafs get their chances.

They rarely shoot from the point, as Rielly and Gardiner both never go for those giant slapshots but instead send floaters or skilful passes to their forwards.

On the other end of the game, the Leafs penalty kill has the exact opposite effect on offensive production. The ability to truly restrain some teams from getting those key chances in front of the net on a consistent basis. They allow more than usual between the two faceoff dots, but a team would much rather have the former than the latter.

via hockeyviz.com

Meanwhile, in Boston, they barely scratch the surface of their forwards’ skill and are basically league average when it comes to the powerplay. They have an excess of shots in the middle of the zone, but have a giant hole when it comes to making use of any players that stand in front of the opposing goalmouth.

They essentially got extremely lucky all season long, somehow having a higher powerplay percentage than the Leafs.

The one thing going for them is that they had roughly the same production level defensively on the penalty kill as the Leafs this season. Both teams sitting in the middle of league rankings in that regard — 16th for the Bruins and the Leafs finished at 19th — neither one will be demonstrating some elite shutdown kill work this series.

No matter what, this series is going to be interesting in all situations, but especially when the special teams are out there.

The Leafs have been able to set historic numbers this year, but lack the luck or finish to get those chances to truly count. At a rate of 7.77 GF/60, this team underproduced for what their expected numbers were, but the Bruins are on the other end of it all.

Scoring on the powerplay at a 9.67 GF/60 rate, for third-highest in the league, the Bruins have been able to get extremely lucky at points. Because of where they shoot from and how much they truly attempt, they should not be scoring at this rate — but they are.

If everything perfectly aligns, the Leafs should be absolutely destroying the Bruins penalty kill. No one should be surprised if they walk away from the series with a 40%+ success rate, but this sport never really works that way. Teams get lucky or unlucky no matter how elite they are at producing offence.

They are clearly better than the Bruins, but no one cares unless they finish the job and win the series.

-data via Evolving Hockey, HockeyViz and Natural Stat Trick-

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